|Jeong Eun-kyeong, chief of the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency, answers questions over concerns about the safety of seasonal flu shots during a National Assembly Health and Welfare Committee audit of the agency, Thursday. Yonhap|
By Bahk Eun-ji
Public fear is escalating over the safety of the seasonal flu vaccination after a series of deaths among people who had recently received the vaccination, although the health authorities have said there was no connection.
As of 4 p.m., Thursday, the number of deaths nationwide of people who had been vaccinated against the seasonal influenza increased to 25, according to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA).
An increasing number of elderly people here are expressing concerns over the vaccination as most cases were in this age group, although the KDCA repeated that the deaths were not associated with the flu shots.
In addition to the death of a man in his 70s who received the flu vaccine in Incheon, west of Seoul, Thursday, other cases were reported in Suncheon, South Jeolla Province; Imsil, North Jeolla Province; Seongju, North Gyeongsang Province; and Changwon, South Gyeongsang Province.
According to Yeonsu Police Station in Incheon, a woman reported that she found her 74-year-old husband dead in his bed at 6:08 a.m.
The police confirmed that the man had been vaccinated against the seasonal flu at 7 p.m. Tuesday at a clinic in Yeonsu District, Incheon. The vaccine the man was administered with was supplied by the KDCA for the free vaccination program for the elderly.
An investigation by the police and health authorities revealed the man had underlying diseases including high blood pressure and diabetes. The police are planning to check whether there is a link between his death and the vaccination through an autopsy.
This is the second death in the Incheon district following that of a 17-year-old high school student on Oct. 16.
Despite the number of deaths, health officials reaffirmed their plan to continue with the free vaccination program. This is because no connection between the vaccination and the deaths has been clearly determined, and so it's too early to make a decision to halt the program.
Asked by Choi Yeon-sook of the People Power Party, during a National Assembly Health and Welfare Committee audit, Thursday, KDCA Director Jeong Eun-kyeong replied "The agency has yet to confirm whether the deaths are related to the vaccination. The epidemiological investigators have expressed their opinion that there is a low possibility that the deaths were direct outcomes of the vaccination."
Jeong said "The epidemiological investigation and post-mortem examinations are still underway." The government has concluded that there are no quality problems with the vaccine.
Kim Jung-gon, a professor in the Pediatrics Department at Seoul Medical Center who is heading the investigation team said, "After discussing whether it was better to stop vaccinations and wait a little longer to find out the cause, we concluded that it was reasonable to continue."
Experts also suggest that there was no problem with the quality of the vaccine.
Kim Yoon, chairman of the Department of Health Policy and Management at Seoul National University Medical School said, "There are no reports of similar adverse reactions from the same medical institution or when people are being administered the same vaccine. Although the deaths occurred at similar time, it is more likely that it was an independent incident that had no direct relationship."
On the other hand, there are voices calling for caution with the flu vaccinations. Seo Dong-cheol, a professor at Chung-Ang University's College of Pharmacology, said, "If we do something wrong, we will have to investigate the cause of death. Since the elderly usually have a lot of underlying diseases, it would be better for the people with high secondary risks to avoid vaccinations right now."
The Korean Medical Association (KMA) went further, urging the government to suspend the free vaccination program until it confirms the safety of the vaccines.
"We advise the vaccination programs be halted for one week as the links between recent death cases and vaccination have not been clearly validated," said KMA President Choi Dae-zip during a press conference at the association's building in Yongsan, Seoul.
The KMA is the country's largest doctors' association and represents 130,000 medical practitioners.